U.S. takes issue with China snub

Times Staff Writer

Top U.S. Navy officials sharply criticized China on Tuesday for refusing to allow U.S. warships to stop in Hong Kong last week, signaling a potential fracture in American-Chinese relations just a short time after a visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

On Nov. 20, the Chinese refused to allow two minesweepers, the Patriot and Guardian, to enter Hong Kong to refuel and take refuge from a storm.

The next day, the Chinese refused to permit the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and its strike group to make a scheduled four-day port call to Hong Kong for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Chinese officials have not yet provided an explanation for denying access to Hong Kong, and top U.S. military leaders have not spoken directly with the Chinese military.


The denial of access for the Kitty Hawk was later reversed. But by that time, the carrier group was already en route to Japan after long-planned holiday reunions between American service members and their families had been ruined.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, and Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, both took sharp exception to the Chinese government’s refusal to allow the minesweepers to come into port when threatened by rough seas.

“As someone who has been going to sea all my life, if there is one tenet that we observe it’s when somebody is in need you provide [assistance] and you sort it out later,” Roughead said.

Roughead noted that neither of the vessels was damaged by the storm and both were refueled at sea by a tanker.

China’s denial of refuge for the minesweepers was perplexing and at odds with international mariner traditions, Keating said.

“This is, kind of, an unwritten law amongst seamen, that if someone is in need, regardless of genus, phylum or species, you let them come in; you give them safe harbor,” Keating said. “Jimmy Buffett has songs about it, for crying out loud.”

The Chinese have recently played host to a series of high-level visits by U.S. military officials. Gates’ visit on Nov. 5 followed an earlier visit by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, just before he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. officials have been working to improve military-to-military relations with China in hopes of coaxing the People’s Liberation Army to be more forthcoming about its budget and military doctrine.

But China frequently maintains silence about the reasoning behind its military moves, as it has done in the case of the American warships.

Hong Kong is a popular harbor for U.S. warships. Both Keating and Roughead said that the Navy continued to plan on using Hong Kong as a port of call.

About 50 U.S. Navy ships visit Hong Kong each year, Navy officials said.

The last naval ship to be denied access was the destroyer Curtis Wilbur in 2002. The Chinese never provided a reason for that denial.

The U.S. wants to establish a permanent hotline between the Pentagon and China’s defense establishment. Although the Chinese have agreed in principle to the phone line, they have delayed its implementation and the technical details have yet to be finalized.

Keating said he hoped to go to China in January, but the Chinese had not yet approved the visit. If the trip happens, he said, the denial of refuge would be the top issue on his agenda.